In a celebration of the birth of the Holy Last Messenger (peace be upon him) held in Upstate New York, Binghamton-. Broome Community College Professor Diane O’Heron stated, “I thank you for asking me to participate on this most blessed of days. My name is Diane O’Heron, and I am a professor of English at Broome Community College. Every day I have the opportunity to witness people taking action to transform their lives for the better and to assist them in these attempts by helping them to write more effectively and to guide them through their college careers. Over the past few years, I have been the teacher of and advisor to some of your children, sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, and friends. I have read many essays and discussed many class choices for upcoming semesters; I have given much feedback and advice. But I have been given much in return. As a person of faith, I benefit everyday from my interactions with my Muslim students and friends at BCC. I am a better Catholic and Christian today because I have been a witness to their devoted practice of Islam. In a college setting, it is easy for a person to hide his/her faith, and fear of social rejection actually encourages us to deny what we believe. The presence of Muslim students at BCC encourages me to remember that though I live in this world, my faith teaches me I am not “of this world,” and I should live my life according to spiritual values. Through the practice of their faith in the least and most obvious ways, the Muslims in my academic community remind me every day of how I can deepen my commitment to the worship of my God and to the service of my neighbors. Today I would like to tell you two stories about Muslim students whose practice of their faith strengthened my own as a Christian.
First, an example of how the Muslim practice of showing kindness to another produced immeasurable good. This fall, a Muslim student came to BCC for the first time. She had never been in a mixed faith classroom. There would be many challenges for her, and these certainly pre-occupied her on her first day of school. But that day, she met another student whose emotional and cognitive problems were immediately apparent to her. While her fears were real, she knew that Allah had graced her with a sound mind and a clear heart; she knew that she was called that day to make this other student welcome and comfortable in a new place. She continued to do this every class for an entire semester; her kindness was an example to me and her other classmates. My student’s charity that semester showed me that in honoring the least valued and the most troubled members of our society, I honor my God. I also help to create a world where God’s good can multiply itself. The student she befriended went on to her second semester in college a more confident and self-assured person; she will remember her first college English class as a place where she was safe and cared for. In our faiths we are taught small kindnesses produce untold rewards, but we must be willing to do this work. In her small way, this student accepted God’s charge and made a testimony to her faith. I witnessed that and prayed for the willingness to replicate her example.
I have seen many more examples of Muslim students’ faith in their kindness, openness and warmth in their participation in my classroom and in school activities. A hymn in my church contains the line “They will know we are Christians by our love.” I could just as easily substitute “Muslims” in this line from my knowledge of the Muslims at BCC. But the way Muslims students are most obviously recognized at BCC is by how many, particularly the women, choose to dress. As I said earlier, it is easy for the members of some faiths to hide their religion. This is not a choice many of the Muslims I know at BCC make. Their example teaches me that there is great value in walking a narrow spiritual path. My religion teaches me that the more I sacrifice of myself to honor God, the more peace and contentment I will have in my life on this earth. A Muslim woman’s decision to veil showed me this lesson in a new way.
This semester, a Muslim woman in my English class wrote an essay defending the practice of veiling against charges that the practice was oppressive. She wrote that in a culture that teaches us “less is more,” a woman who chooses to veil is seen as depriving herself of all the rewards the material world can provide. My student explained clearly and carefully that her decision to veil was a declaration of her commitment to spiritual ideals. The practice of these ideals allowed her to value herself more highly and to focus her efforts on living as God would have her live. My student attends her classes and participates in discussions unself-consciously. She does not spend her time thinking about whether she measures up on the college attractiveness meter; she knows her worth as a woman and a person and she conveys this with both humility and confidence.
I could see that in her decision to veil herself, my student had turned the “less is more” message on its head. By paying less attention to the demands of our society and paying more honor to the dictates of her faith, she had freed herself up spiritually. Her rejection of the “less is more” worldly ideal spoke to me as a Christian. In what ways did I deny myself as a Christian by consciously and unconsciously practicing the “less is more” philosophy of our material culture? What did I lose every time I chose to show “less” of my faith in order to gain “more” of society’s rewards? I challenge myself everyday to conduct myself as I believe God would have me, and I look to my Muslim students for inspiration. It takes spiritual and often physical courage to set yourself apart as a person of faith. The constant visible example of their faith strengthens me to live my faith as clearly as they live their own. I pray only to be as faithful a follower as the men and women I have had the privilege to know. For the opportunity to know you and to learn from you, I give thanks to God. And for the opportunity to share my thoughts today, I thank you.”